On this day in history. : 19th February 1968 – The High Court awards 62 children compensation after they are born with deformities after their mothers took the drug thalidomide during pregnancy….

The two enantiomers of thalidomide : Left: (S)-(-)- thalidomide : Right: (R)-(+)-thalidomide

Thalidomide can only be described as a dark chapter in the history of pharmaceutical history…. It was developed in the 1950s, by West German pharmaceutical company the Grünenthal Group. It was licensed in the UK by The Distillers Company (Biochemicals) Ltd….

The drug was marketed as a sedative and mild sleeping pill – safe enough even for pregnant women to take…. It became extremely popular with expectant mothers as it was also found to ease morning sickness…. So safe was it deemed that it could be bought over the counter….

Thalidomide became available in the UK in 1958…. It was in 1961 that Australian doctor, William McBride, wrote to the medical publication, The Lancet, with his observations of an increase in deformed babies born to mothers who had used the drug…. It was removed from the UK market in late 1961 after tests concluded that it impaired foetal development….

Congenital malformation of the feet. Effects of maternal drugs – thalidomide. Image credit: Otis Historical Archives via Flickr

Babies born to mothers who had taken Thalidomide were often born with limbs that had failed to develop properly – but sometimes it affected eyes, ears and internal organs…. The severity of cases varied…. It is unknown how many miscarriages may have been caused by it…. Worldwide it could have been anywhere up to 100,000 women who had used the drug to alleviate their morning sickness symptoms – well over 400 victims were born in the UK….

Terry Wiles (right) who was born with phocomelia due to thalidomide. Public domain

After the High Court ruling in 1968 many other claims were settled out of court. In 1973, after pressure from the press and public, Distillers finally agreed to establish a trust fund and make lump sum payouts to all affected children….

Thalidomide resulted in tougher drug testing and approval procedures – but tragically for so many it was too little too late…. Nowadays Thalidomide is sometimes used as a treatment for certain types of cancer. From 2004 it became available on a named patient basis – meaning doctors can prescribe it but under strict controls….

Pack of Thalidomide tablets circa 2006 or later. Stephencdickson via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

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